Spot the difference between these two quotes (if you can);

-“Don’t you think all the excavations we have made had been anticipated by Goldfinders or more probably gold seekers?” – William Hackett, in April 1842

-“I received a phone call from a neighbour telling me that there were a lot of people on my land digging holes”John Douglas, in July 2010

Selecting a hook for this final part has taken quite a while but the delay, as sometimes happens when you’re not expecting anything, has brought a couple of gifts – the second quote above, for example, only appeared in the news the other day (nothing has changed really, has it?). More importantly, however, I’ve been able to think about what other people think about what I’ve written and one person’s remarks (thank you Jonathan Jarrett), have significantly affected my previous arguments in a couple of places. Although you can check back, if you wish, to read his full contributions in their context, I will reproduce the relevant sentences here;

“I work at a museum which records UK coin finds for the early Middle Ages, and I have to give a warning from the inside that the infrastructure simply isn’t there to record much more than we already do. Detectorists we are in contact with suggest that we hear about something like ten per cent of what’s found. If that was all coming our way we’d have three or four detector finds to log every day, it would need at least a part-time dedicated member of staff. What we are getting may not be representative, and it may be upsetting possible dig sites, but there aren’t resources to orchestrate its control any further no matter how desirable that may or not be.”

Obviously, the first thing to stand out is the suggestion, via that contact with detector users, that the reporting rate may actually be as low as 10%. If you will recall my ‘Part 3‘; by using 10,000 estimated users making an average of 15 trips a year and finding an average of one artefact per day, you can calculate a PAS reporting rate of about 37% (150,000 detector finds per year applied to a four-year PAS average of 55,000 objects reported) – what I referred to, then, as the “least damaging scenario”. A rate of 10% would, however, imply that well over half-a-million archaeological objects are being unearthed by metal detector users every year and, consequently, that nearly half-a-million are coming up ‘under the radar‘ and disappearing; a rate that is far, far, in excess of our worst predictions. What kind of monster have you created?

Secondly and also in ‘Part 3‘, while I pointed out that financial considerations are one major factor in prompting changes in law, I approached that subject in a brief, hypothetical, manner – as a possible follow-on to changes necessitated by future alterations in public opinion. Looking from outside, I hadn’t allowed that some museum resources (although he may not speak for PAS, at the very least, Mr. Jarrett will know his immediate surroundings) are already so stretched that the request to detector users to record all, or even “much more“, of their finds cannot possibly be managed. Or, in other words, that parts of the system that asks them to be “responsible” are actually dependent, functionally, on them not being responsible. Incredible, isn’t it? – and don’t forget that budgets, generally, are being contracted and archaeological jobs are under threat, so no extra funding for infrastructure can be expected from the state.

Has the detecting dog grown too big for the house? While we, at Heritage Action, tend to view each situation primarily from an ethical standpoint, governments, as I sketched in ‘Part 3‘, will naturally give more weight to financial factors. On this issue, for once, it looks like their interests and ours may eventually coincide. The completely undesirable (the present, heavily-fractional, reporting level) could be ‘keeping the show on the road’. How much of an increase can it take before something ‘gives’? To quote again from Mr. Jarrett;

“The bigger practical question however remains: where’s the money coming from? If we can’t answer that question then, as I say, the options are simply: what we have now, criminalising unlicensed detector use (which involves a license scheme) or banning detecting outright. Anything else requires more infrastructure, not less. The ideals are a fine thing to debate, but if you want real-world answers the money question has to be answered too.”

Succinctly put – and towards the end of the previous article I asked a different question, but one that used similar components. That is; how can the situation, as it is now; “be worse than the alternative; that is, making the detecting for artefacts illegal, without an official license, and banning their promotion, or sale, for that use? ” I will roughly sketch the shape of that (Irish) alternative in the following paragraphs and follow, then, with links to the detail of the legislation:

An Irish Solution to an English Problem:

(i) Firstly; the problems of both uncontrolled (a growing Gold Rush?) and unqualified excavation, for archaeological objects, are dealt with by Section 2 of the 1987 National Monuments (Amendment) Act. To use the words of Mr. Jarrett’s ‘second option’; it criminalises the unlicensed use of metal detectors for that purpose.

(ii) Secondly; the problem of acquisition is covered by the 1994 National Monuments (Amendment) Act, under which ownership of the found archaeological object, defined in Section 14 as; “…any chattel whether in a manufactured or partly manufactured or an unmanufactured state which by reason of the archaeological interest attaching thereto or of its association with any Irish historical event or person has a value substantially greater than its intrinsic (including artistic) value, and the said expression includes ancient human, animal or plant remains” rests with the state (Section 2).

(iii) Thirdly; under Section 10 of the same Act, the related question of reward is placed subject to a considered decision by the Director of the National Museum. As Minister Higgins put it, in December 1993; “…while rewards may be paid, there is no suggestion that the finder of an archaeological object can have any claim to its ownership conferred on him or her through the payment of a reward. The provision sets out the criteria which the Director of the National Museum may take into account when evaluating whether a reward should be paid, such as the intrinsic value and importance of the object, the circumstances of its finding and amounts paid in other comparable cases. Obviously the provision is designed to reward the conscientious finder of an object who reports the find responsibly to the Director of the National Museum rather than a professional treasure hunter who reports the finding of an object simply as a last resort.”

Solution in summary:

(i) staunching the flow; the banning of the use, without official consent, of metal detectors to search for archaeological objects (because a half-way house is practically impossible – how could you supervise what all the users do and where they do it?) and of their promotion and sale for that purpose,

(ii) the resting of the ownership of those objects in the people of England and Wales rather than, in the words of Mr. Justice Finlay, “those who by chance may find them” and

(iii) the adoption of a system that rewards responsible behaviour.

…“I received a phone call from a neighbour telling me that there were a lot of people on my land digging holes”…

As it is now – even if we are to ignore the fate of the artefacts (the question of acquisition) – to maintain any measure of control over the knowledge that is vanishing daily from the ground, professional, effective recording of each object is necessary and it hardly happens at all. Furthermore, there are indications that the system simply hasn’t the physical means to handle much more of the massive draw.

A question: If anyone who spends £500 on an electronic device and a shovel (only “so-called” amateurs, according to our correspondent from ‘Part 1‘) can do an archaeologist’s job adequately in the eyes of the law, then what, really, is the point of being one?

Useful Links

Seanad Éireann – Volume 114 – 29 October, 1986

Seanad Éireann – Volume 138 – 2 december, 1993

National Monuments (Amendment) Act 1987

National Monuments (Amendment) Act 1994

I am deeply indebted to my colleague, Nigel Swift, for help with the preparation of these articles.


More Heritage Action views on metal detecting and artefact collecting